Q&A: A surviving spouse gets a pension surprise

Dear Liz: I have a question about my late husband’s pension. He was with a company for 25 years and retired early with a defined benefit pension of about $3,700 per month. When he died four years ago, the pension stopped. The company said it was a “single life” pension, but when I tried to get records proving that, they said they had no records. Do you think I have any recourse to petition for some kind of pension? Should I find a lawyer and if so, what kind of lawyer handles this type of thing?

Answer: Traditional pensions typically give workers two options: a single life annuity, whose payments are higher but cease when the recipient dies, or a joint-and-survivor annuity that continues for a surviving spouse’s lifetime. When someone is married, the default option is supposed to be the joint-and-survivor annuity unless the spouse signs a waiver giving up rights to lifetime income. If the company can’t or won’t provide proof of such a waiver, then you’d be smart to get legal help to pursue the issue.

You may be able to get free legal assistance through the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Pension Counseling and Information Program, which currently serves 30 states. If you live in one of the states that isn’t served, you may be able to get help by visiting PensionHelp America, a site run by the nonprofit Pension Rights Center.

Q&A: Pension annuity beats lump sum

Dear Liz: I am 63, recently retired and have a choice. I can take a lump sum from my pension at age 65 or a monthly annuity. I am strongly leaning toward the lump sum. I know the pitfalls (I won’t be an aggressive investor, I don’t gamble, I won’t loan to family or friends, etc). My reasoning is that if my spouse and I both die before our early 80s, “they win.”

I do have relatives who live a long time, however. I am financially very careful and believe interest rates in five years will be several points higher and I can invest the lump sum conservatively and get a 5% to 7% return, and that will work for me.

Finally, I could take the monthly annuity now with no survivor benefit and at the same time buy term life insurance to cover my wife if I go. Am I missing anything significant in my favoring the lump sum?

Answer: Yes. Quite a bit.

Calculating break-even points can be an interesting math exercise, but you’re making assumptions about inflation rates and market returns, as well as life expectancies, that you can’t actually know in advance. A better approach might be to consider what could possibly go wrong. The answer: a lot.

Technically, you might do better investing the money than collecting the annuity, but there are so many ways you could wind up losing. You could pick the wrong investments, or the markets could turn south for an extended period. You could be defrauded or become the victim of an unethical advisor.

(Sure, you’ve got all your marbles now, but who says you’ll keep them? Even the smartest people can get fleeced, and any cognitive decline over the years could make you a sitting duck.)

The fact that you have longevity in your family is another big factor in favor of taking the annuity, because you can’t outlive the money. That should be a concern, in any case, because according to the Society of Actuaries there’s a 72% chance that one member of a couple will live to age 85 and a 45% chance that one will live to age 90.

If your spouse is a woman and not several years older than you, she’s likely to outlive you. Does she want to inherit the responsibility of managing this money?
Speaking of your spouse, get an independent, fee-only advisor’s opinion before you consider waiving the survivor’s benefit on any annuity.

A term life insurance policy may not last as long as you need it to, and will be expensive at your age. It will be vastly more expensive if you try to renew it down the road.
If you don’t or can’t renew it, your spouse could face a drastic drop in income at your death as one of your two Social Security checks goes away and the pension income stops. Surely, your partner deserves better than that.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How teachers can ace retirement without Social Security. Also in the news: Why credit cards are serving big restaurant rewards, making sure your spending personality matches your credit cards, and the one mistake that can cost millennials millions.

Teachers: Here’s How to Ace Retirement Without Social Security
It varies from state to state.

Why Credit Cards Are Serving Big Restaurant Rewards
Everyone has to eat.

Does your spending personality match your credit cards?
Make sure you’re earning rewards you’ll actually use.

This one mistake can cost millennials millions
Stop avoiding the stock market.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to responsibly handle an inheritance. Also in the news: 7 questions to ask before selling a stock, how to create your own pension, and why 35% of college seniors don’t know what their student loan repayments will be.

How to Responsibly Handle an Inheritance
Don’t run out and buy a sports car just yet.

Selling a Stock? Ask 7 Questions First
What you need to know.

How to Create Your Own Pension
Filling in the gap.

35% of college seniors don’t know what their student loan repayments will be
That’s an alarming number.

Q&A: When a government pension doesn’t reduce Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I have contributed to Social Security for 40 years and have no government pension. My husband selected a reduced teacher’s pension so I would receive that same amount should he predecease me. Will my Social Security be reduced in this scenario?

Answer: No. The provisions that may reduce Social Security payments such as the government pension offset and the windfall elimination provision apply only to the person receiving the pension, not the spouse. If he dies first, your income would remain the same. If you die first, his survivor’s benefit from Social Security could be reduced or eliminated.

Q&A: The confusing balancing act between government pensions and Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am a public school teacher and plan to retire with 25 years of service. I had previously worked and paid into Social Security for about 20 years. My spouse has paid into Social Security for over 30 years. Will I be penalized because I have not paid Social Security taxes while I’ve been teaching? Should my wife die before me, will I get survivor benefits, or will the windfall elimination act take that away? It’s so confusing!

Answer: It is confusing, but you should understand that the rules about windfall elimination (along with a related provision, the government pension offset) are not designed to take away from you a benefit that others get. Rather, the rules are set up so that people who get government pensions — which are typically more generous than Social Security — don’t wind up with significantly more money from Social Security than those who paid into the system their entire working lives.

Here’s how that can happen. Social Security benefits are progressive, which means they’re designed to replace a higher percentage of a lower-earner’s income than that of a higher earner. If you don’t pay into the system for many years — because you’re in a job that provides a government pension instead — your annual earnings for Social Security would be reported as zeros in those years. Social Security is based on your 35 highest-earning years, so all those zeros would make it look like you earned a lower (often much lower) lifetime income than you actually did. Without any adjustments, you would wind up with a bigger check from Social Security than someone who earned the same income in the private sector and paid much more in Social Security taxes. It was that inequity that caused Congress to create the windfall elimination provision several decades ago.

People who earn government pensions also could wind up with significantly more money when a spouse dies. If a couple receives two Social Security checks, the survivor gets the larger of the two when a spouse dies. The household doesn’t continue to receive both checks. Without the government pension offset, someone like you would get both a pension and a full survivor’s check. Again, that could leave you significantly better off than someone who had paid more into the system.

Q&A: Options for a pension payout

Dear Liz: I am a single, 52-year-old female. I just received some information about my pension from a previous employer that gives me the option to take a lump sum of $18,701 that I can roll it into an eligible retirement plan. Or I could also take it now and be subject to penalty and taxes. Or I could defer taking payment until I’m 65, when I would start getting a monthly estimated check worth $218.68. The time is limited to make my decision. I don’t need income now, so I am interested in taking the rollover and severing ties with them. But I could wait until I am 65 and take the monthly payments. Which deal is better financially?

Answer: Theoretically you can do better with the lump sum — assuming you roll it over into an IRA or other retirement plan, invest at least half of it in stocks for long-term growth and keep your hands off the money until you’re ready to retire. If you would be tempted to do something stupid like cash out, then you’re better off with the annuity. The annuity check also is for life, while the fate of the lump sum depends on market returns.

Q&A: Social Security vs. state pension

Dear Liz: I worked enough in private industry to qualify for Social Security benefits, but then worked for the state and did not contribute to Social Security for another 20 years. So, I will have a state pension at my current salary as well as Social Security representing my former salary, which was about one-third of what I’m making now. My question is, would it be of value to retire early and return to private industry for a few years?

Answer: Your Social Security benefit is likely to be reduced because you’re getting a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security. This is known as the windfall elimination provision, and you can learn more about it on the Social Security website.

You can avoid the provision if you had 30 years or more of “substantial earnings” (which varies by year but was at least $22,050 in 2015) from jobs that paid into Social Security.
It probably wouldn’t make much sense to quit a well-paying job with a presumably generous pension to try to boost a much smaller Social Security payout. But a fee-only financial planner could run the numbers for you and explain your various options.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

download (1)Today’s top story: How to put an end to credit card solicitations. Also in the news: How a two checking account system could help automate your budget, how to maximize your pension, and five surprising sources of debt.

How to Stop Credit Card Solicitations for Good
Reclaiming your mailbox.

Use the Two Checking Account System to Automate Your Budget
Why two accounts could make budgeting easier.

Maximize Your Pension With This Calculator
Calculating the best option for your retirement.

5 Surprising Sources of Debt
Racking up debt from unexpected sources.

Q&A: Public pension and Social Security

Dear Liz: I am one of the thousands of adjunct faculty who teach in our nation’s colleges. We are paid on an hourly or per-class basis. We therefore earn a fraction of what tenured faculty earn. I am covered by a state teachers pension, but my anticipated benefit, even after 30 years of teaching, will not exceed $1,500 per month. I have qualified for a modest Social Security benefit of perhaps $1,000, accrued through years of part-time work as a student and graduate student. I have been told that my Social Security will be reduced because of my teacher’s pension.

Surely this cannot be correct. I understand that if I were collecting a generous state or military pension, I would not need Social Security. However, without my Social Security, my teacher’s pension will not even lift me above the poverty level. Isn’t there some sort of “means testing” before they slash your Social Security benefit?

Answer: You were informed correctly. When you receive a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, any Social Security benefit you did earn may be reduced (but not eliminated).
Before the creation of the Windfall Elimination Provision, people who received pensions based on earnings not covered by Social Security often got a proportionately larger benefit than those who paid into the system their entire working lives.

The Social Security site has a chart and a calculator to help you understand how your benefit might be affected. The chart shows that if you reached age 62 this year and you had fewer than 20 years of so-called “substantial earnings” covered by Social Security, your monthly benefit could be reduced by up to $413 or half of your teacher’s pension, whichever is less. Limiting the offset to half protects people who get small pensions from having too much of their Social Security benefit wiped out. Substantial earnings are wages equal to or above a certain amount each year ($22,050 for 2015) from jobs that paid into Social Security.

Based on the information you provided, your pension and Social Security income would total just over $2,000 a month. That’s not a lot, but the average Social Security check in 2015 was about $1,300. The poverty threshold in 2015, meanwhile, was $980 per month for a one-person household and $1,327.50 for a two-person household.